27 September 2016

Now, Live, The Non-Beatles

by Kirk Woodward

[As veteran ROTters know by now, Kirk Woodward is a longtime friend and a major contributor to this blog.  I can’t even begin to count the number of articles of his authorship I’ve posted here in the 7½ years since I launched Rick On Theater—which, in truth, was largely Kirk’s idea to start with.  But Kirk’s not only an excellent writer (he’s a playwright as well, and a composer-lyricist, too), but he’s very knowledgeable about topics in which I’m deficient.  (That’s a fancy way of saying ‘ignorant’!)  That means he can cover subjects ROT would never treat if it weren’t for him, so I’m damn lucky he’s so generous with his writing.

[One of those topics, as readers of ROT will be able to attest, is the greatest rock band ever conceived: The Beatles.  (You cannot argue with that, so don’t even try.)  I’ve published four Fab Four articles by Kirk already; this will be his fifth—and I daresay not his last.  (The Beatles are forever.)  Now, clearly, I’m a big fan—I was living in Europe when the Boys from Liverpool made their appearance on the rock ’n’ roll scene in the early ’60s, so I heard them before their music made it across the pond as the advance guard of the British Invasion—but Kirk is way more knowledgeable about them and has a background in music that I lack, so he’s much more qualified to write about them from a critical standpoint than am I. 

[So pay heed to “Now, Live, The Non-Beatles,” Kirk’s take on Beatles cover bands.  You don’t have to love the Beatles to find this examination interesting—after all, there are cover bands for many other groups and much of what Kirk says here applies to them as well.  You also don’t have to agree with Kirk’s conclusions about cover bands; you’ll still find his thoughts provocative and informative.] 

Scholars like Richard Schechner (b. 1934) in the last half century have developed the field of Performance Studies, examining the dynamics of the relationship between performers, performances, audiences, and communities both in this country and in locations in South America, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. These studies have added to our understanding of theater, and also have brought attention to the cultures of peoples otherwise obscure to us.

This is all well and good, but where, I ask, are the scholarly studies of the issues raised by the performances of Beatles cover bands?

I’m not talking about bands that play Beatles songs among others – I’ve been in some of those myself – but about bands that dedicate themselves entirely to the music of the Beatles, and sometimes to their appearance and personalities as well. I’ve heard four of these bands, as well as I can remember. One, at a BeatleFest, played only Beatle songs and wasn’t very good. One, the Fab Faux, is highly regarded by musicians and audiences alike. Its membersmake no attempt to look or act like the Beatles; they just play highly skilled versions of Beatle songs, and the result is a delight.

And then… I have seen two bands that do their best to be the Beatles. I will not name them, because that doesn’t feel right, but trust me, I’ve been there, and both times I’ve found the experience extremely confusing. I don’t think it adds to my confusion that I actually saw the Beatles twice, in Chicago and Cincinnati, on their last tour in 1966. (I have written about those experiences, and others involving the Beatles, on this blog.) The real Beatles were who they were. But these bands . . . who are they?

Imitation bands are by no means unusual in the music field. A number of “big bands” from the thirties and forties are still active although their leaders and members have long since gone to their reward. The Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie Orchestras, for example, are still, so to speak, in full swing. Similarly, in rock, the Coasters have no original members performing; the Drifters became several groups with variations of that name; and so on.

But the Beatles are different. We recognize and enjoy the songs of any number of singers and groups, but many of us know by heart every note the Beatles played and sang on record. We saw their films, watched their interviews, and followed their lives and careers. By actual count I have eighteen books about the Beatles on my shelves, including a complete collection of their scores and at least four books that record their day to day experiences. My enthusiasm may or may not be extreme, but it is safe to assume that many in the audience of a band imitating the Beatles know the originals well.

So what does the audience for a recreation, like, say, Beatlemania (which I did not see, on Broadway in 1977-1979) come to see? To tell the truth, I’m not sure, and can only provide my own impressions, to be taken for what they’re worth.

On the positive side, the music of the Beatles remains an extraordinary achievement and hearing it performed, even badly, brings their accomplishments back to mind. An ordinary concert can play up to perhaps a quarter of the songs they recorded (Beatlemania included about fifty songs), all of them great, with any number of masterpieces remaining unplayed. A cover band of skilled musicians, abetted by a synthesizer, can reproduce the instrumental side of the recordings pretty faithfully, and that means a full helping of delights.

But at this point the problems start. The voices of the Beatles, both singing and speaking, were and are distinctive; the more distinctive, the harder to reproduce. (The Fab Faux don’t try.) And why should they be reproduced? Do we really need to hear a lot of unsteady Liverpool accents spoken by Americans? But if not, the group can’t really be said to be reproducing the Beatles.

And that leads to the central question: who are these people? We know perfectly well that they’re not really the Beatles. One group I saw carefully never claimed that they were, referring now and then to those “other people.” Another pretended that they actually were the Beatles,but in some sort of time warp, wearing costumes from the Summer of Love but occasionally referring to events that happened much later, after the original group had broken up.

In either case, I sense deep audience confusion. Who is our applause for? The Beatles earned the applause, since it’s both their music and their personalities; but they can’t hear it, no matter how loudly we cheer; they’re not there. Certainly the cover band deserves credit for whatever it achieves in musicianship; but ovations aren’t made from such, and besides, it’s really someone else’s musicianship they’ve borrowed for the occasion. Are the band members proxies for the Beatles? Well, no; it’s pretty clear that there’s no particular support for these enterprises from the principals of Apple Corps, Paul, Ringo, Yoko, and Olivia.

And looming even larger is the problem of imitating any great artist: the imitation can’t possibly be as good as the original was. Otherwise the impersonators too would be great artists, and they’re not – they’re imitators. Someone, I can’t remember who, wrote about Elvis impressionists that there aren’t any great ones, because to be great, you’d have to be as great as Elvis, and if you were, why would you spend your time imitating him? Nobody can be that great, and anyway you certainly would never be if all you did was pretend you were someone else. Ray Charles tried to sound like Charles Brown (1922-1999) for years; he didn’t become the great singer we know until he decided to sound like himself.

A result of this dilemma is that the performers seem to experience an energy leak in performance. The Beatles were exciting live artists – I saw this for myself. They were exploring new territory, feeding off each other’s enthusiasm, breaking down walls. When this experience became routine, they stopped doing it. The imitation groups are picking up where the Beatles left off – after the thrill has gone. Trying to reproduce the excitement the Beatles felt has got to be hollow. Excitement can’t be reproduced; it has to be created anew.

I have a horrible feeling that the only way to make sense of a Beatles imitation concert is to pretend that it really is the Beatles we’re seeing, fifty years or so later, not as popular as they used to be and now spending their time appearing at state fairs, city parks, and baseball stadiums. They’ve put on weight, they wear wigs to conceal their receding hairlines, they look like imitations of themselves, but we still love them, so we cheer them on as they go through their old paces. That kind of mental exercise is the only way I can think of to account for the weird experience of seeing a group of impersonators . . . but, good Lord, what a bleak way of looking at it.

The Beatles, of course, had much better sense. They stopped touring in 1966. (A new documentary about their concerts, Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, directed by Ron Howard, will open in September 2016.) They always had a strong distaste for repeating themselves; they had no interest in doing what they’d already done. When touring became a slog, they moved into the recording studio fulltime, in an outburst of creativity that’s seldom been matched (Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles, Abbey Road, and more). Creativity is exciting. Imitation is not, and perhaps the problem with these recreation performances is as simple as that.

But there is also a tribal dimension to such shows. We like to gather around commonalities, and the Beatles bring us together. Everybody knows the Beatles! Audiences at these shows don’t expect surprises; they expect familiar sights and sounds. There’s a feeling of reassurance there. So events like the recreation acts will probably continue for some time to come, and I suppose there are worse things.

[For those who want to look back at Kirk’s past Beatles articles, before “Now, Live, The Non-Beatles,” I posted “The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010 (which gets a mention in the article above); “The Beatles Box,” 30 September 2012; “The Beatles Diary” (by Kirk with his late wife, Pat Woodward), 8 January 2013; and “The Beatles’ Influence,” 13 July 2015

[Kirk has other passions as well, many displayed on ROT.  One of those is the films of Woody Allen.  My friend’s next post on this blog will be “Woody Allen’s Recent Movies,” which I plan to publish next month.]

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